Make or brake: California’s robotaxis show self-driving limits


The Cruise accident wasn’t the first such incident involving driverless cars in America but it served to intensify a long-running debate over how quickly this technology should be rolled out across California. — Reuters

LOS ANGELES: It should have been the smoothest of rides: rolling out robotaxis in San Francisco, America’s tech capital. But there were bumps in the road and today driverless cars face mounting criticism across California even as firms plan for expansion.

In August, the California Public Utilities Commission voted to allow General Motors’ Cruise and Waymo, owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, to run round-the-clock robotaxis in San Francisco for the first time.

Just two months later, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) ordered Cruise to pull all its cars off the roads after one of its vehicles hit a pedestrian in San Francisco.

The DMV found the self-driving vehicles to be a risk to the public, and Cruise responded by saying it would halt its operations nationwide. The company has also expanded a safety review of its robotaxis and top officials have resigned.

The Cruise accident wasn’t the first such incident involving driverless cars in America but it served to intensify a long-running debate over how quickly this technology should be rolled out across California.

“We need to keep a close eye on this industry,” Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, the leader of the Democratic party’s majority in the California Assembly, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview. “We want them to succeed but it needs to be safe, and we don’t want to lose jobs.”

The drive to reconcile these competing priorities is particularly acute in California, which has become something of an incubator for this cutting-edge technology.

More than 40 companies have permits to test self-driving cars in the city of San Francisco, according to the DMV.

Waymo recently expanded its robotaxi service to Los Angeles, where its self-driving SUVs have become a ubiquitous sight in some Westside neighbourhoods.

But safety advocates and labour groups are increasingly sounding the alarm.

In San Francisco, activists from Safe Street Rebel, a group fighting for car-free spaces, have sought to disrupt robotaxis by placing cones on the hoods of the cars to confuse their sensors.

They say they are worried about the vehicles’ impact on pedestrians and their effect on the overall urban environment.

In Los Angeles, the Teamsters union has held several rallies to protest the expansion of self-driving technology and the impact it might have on those who drive for a living.

“These big corporations are rushing this out – it’s classic tech startups, prioritising growth and market share; who cares if everything breaks?” said Peter Finn, the Teamsters Western Region international vice president, in a phone interview.

“But there are safety issues, there are congestion issues, and of course there are labour issues.”

The autonomous vehicle industry says the technology is being rolled out carefully.

“The development of this technology has been more than a decade in the making. It’s required tremendous investment and human capital,” said Jeff Farrah, chief executive officer at the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, which represents major players in the sector.

“People are bound to have questions and we have an obligation to build trust; safety is at the core of everything we do.”

Companies like Cruise and Waymo say real-world testing in dense city environments is essential to perfecting a technology that they say could lead to fewer traffic accidents and injuries and create more well-paid jobs in the logistics sector.

“The trust and safety of the communities in which we drive is important to us as we responsibly deploy technology that will increasingly improve road safety,” said Waymo spokesperson Sandy Karp, adding that the company would continue engaging with communities, publishing insights into safety performance and seeking feedback from riders to improve the experience.

Self-driving cars are being tested in Arizona, Texas and Florida, among other locations. San Francisco, the symbolic hub of tech, is the most dense urban environment where the cars have been rolled out en masse.

But the pushback is intensifying. In November, more than two dozen unions urged auto safety regulators to open an industry-wide probe into driverless vehicles, including Waymo and Amazon.com’s Zoox. The unions cited the recent investigation into Cruise and California’s decision to suspend Cruise testing.

Technical breakthroughs

Tech companies have been predicting the imminent arrival of self-driving cars for over a decade and major technical milestones have been reached already, said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor.

Waymo removed its human “safety drivers”, who sit in the car to supervise, in late 2019, and Karp said the company had driven more than five million rider-only miles.

But safety issues have continued to plague the industry, even as it has made technical progress in some areas. And some companies have found that the tech development was harder and more expensive than expected, leading to job cuts and even some companies going to the wall.

In 2018 Uber shut down its self-driving car operations in Arizona after one of its cars hit and killed a pedestrian, even though there was a safety driver in the car. It was the first recorded death involving a self-driving car.

Crash reports filed by Waymo and Cruise show that the companies have logged 102 crashes over around six million miles of driving, or approximately one crash every 60,000 miles, according to a tally by the tech website Ars Technica in September. Most of those crashes were low speed and the fault of other drivers.

There are other related concerns. In San Francisco, police and fire departments have recorded dozens of incidents where self-driving vehicles have impeded emergency operations.

Smith understands the concerns and says that “companies that responsibly deploy in the aggregate will deliver a service that is safer than a human”.

He recognises, however, that the stakes are higher than with other tech innovations.

“When it comes to ChatGPT or other kinds of AI, you might get a weird answer,” he said. “If something like that goes wrong in an automated vehicle, you’d be dead now.”

A truckload of jobs

Exactly what the self-driving revolution will mean for human drivers and the labour market is still uncertain.

Some industry experts predict millions of jobs could be at risk of being displaced – one 2017 study said more than four million jobs would likely be lost with a rapid transition to autonomous vehicles.

But autonomous vehicles could also direct more investment to the logistics sector, creating higher paying technical and engineering jobs.

One 2021 research paper – commissioned by the Department of Transportation – found automation would lead to a small amount of job losses across the US, offset by job growth in other areas.

The Teamsters union, which represents over 600,000 professional drivers across a range of logistics fields, has taken a leading role in advocating for new regulations for this nascent industry, particularly in the freight sector.

In January, Aguiar-Curry, the California lawmaker, proposed a Teamsters-backed law that would require human drivers to be present in any self-driving freight trucks over 10,000 pounds.

California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill in September, saying it could impede the pace of innovation.

Finn, the Teamsters representative, said the union is working to propose similar legislation in other states, and to push cities to slow the spread of self-driving tech.

The safety scandals show that autonomous technology is not ready for big freight loads, he said, because these trucks require a skilled driver capable of dealing with unexpected situations.

“You can’t teach these robots 10% of unexpected scenarios where things get dangerous,” he said.

Aguiar-Curry said she is most focused on making sure self-driving technology is rolled out carefully.

“The last thing we want is a self-driving truck hitting someone,” she said. “The industry is not ready for prime time.” – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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